To those who want to regulate search engines, ban traffic-light cameras, and otherwise crack down on algorithmic decision-making and automation: Careful what you wish for.
A growing chorus of commentators is rallying against the "tyranny of the algorithm," the notion that computer-aided decision-making might create a dystopia where automated systems ruin reputations, encourage narrow-minded discourse, harvest organs without people's consent, and remove free will from the world altogether.
This argument isn't just an intellectual conceit; it underpins movements in the US to regulate search engines and ban traffic-light cameras. In Europe, efforts are underway to curtail automated decisions about individuals. Taken to the extreme, this critique suggests a wholesale rejection of algorithmic decision-making.
Imagine that 10 years from now, a new US Congress dominated by members angry about "filter bubbles" and "algorithmic overlords" decides to outlaw algorithms. Let’s see how this decision might affect an average citizen.
Bob wakes up and notices the bright mid-morning sunlight and sounds of bustling traffic outside his window. He has overslept, despite having told his iPhone's Siri app to wake him up at 7:00 a.m. From now on, he will have to remember to set his alarm manually, as his phone's apps no longer support speech recognition.
Bob, an experienced coder, lost his job when his employer eliminated its entire analytics department, so he's looking for work. He checks his email for responses to his job applications, only to spend half an hour slogging through emails from Nigerian scam artists and black-market pharmacies selling Viagra. It's a shame, he thinks, that spam filters are no more.
He heads downtown to the job center and gets stuck in traffic. The roads shouldn't be this crowded so late in the morning, but then it dawns on him: The traffic lights are no longer synchronized. Morning gridlock is now worse than ever. He considers driving into the city with one of his friends next time
Daniel Castro is a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Castro writes and speaks on a variety of issues related to information technology and Internet policy, including privacy, ... View Full Bio
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